I have never lost a chicken before. It seems unthinkable to me that I could have done so this week. When I left on a trip to the supermarket on Monday, Bertha and Tilly were happily excavating snowdrops in the Human Garden, and the rest of the hens were being altogether better behaved on their side of the divide, in the Hen Garden.
I admit I was concerned about Tilly’s presence in the snowdrop patch, since as yet she has learnt only how to get over the little fence that divides Us and Hens, but not yet how to get back in the other direction. So whenever I have spotted her trying to find a way back, I have obligingly given her a leg up. To my knowledge, she has never yet made it back unaided.
This is silly, really, since we have even put a garden seat by the fence on our side, specifically to help any stranded hens back onto their own patch. But Tilly has ignored this chair and prefers instead to pace up and down the length of the low fence, trying to breach it by going through (not possible – she is too big) or by just worrying herself into materialising on the other side.
She should take a tip from Bertha, our buxom, height-challenged Orpington, who as both our shortest and stoutest hen, frequently manages to bounce onto the plastic-coated wire at will, like a portly tight-rope walker. After wobbling precariously for a few moments, she plops down in an ungainly way on the other side, and carries on pottering.
This skill has enabled Bertha to adopt us humans in a way that most of the others cannot; she can stand on the bench and look in the kitchen window, and heaven help me if I open the back door – a small chocolate-coloured ball of expansive bottom feathers hurls itself in at top speed, and once she has a foot in the door, well, that’s it really.
But this is Tilly’s story and Tilly is not quite as agile, daring, or logical, as Bertha. So when I left for the supermarket I knew I had to be back home before Tilly needed to think about going into the henhouse. Unfortunately, a slight delay at customer services tipped me out of the optimum time and when I got home at 4.45 pm the hens were already upstairs on their perch. I did a quick head count – five. Not six. I counted again – still only five. As Tilly is never the last to bed, I was extremely worried.
It seemed more than likely that this ghastly situation was directly related to Tilly’s inability to get back to the henhouse on the other side of the fence. My mind went into overdrive and I imagined how her futile attempts to squeeze through the fence might cause her to get increasingly panicky, especially as Bertha no doubt plopped lightly over and back to bed long before dusk was starting to descend. Poor Tilly would have seen all the other hens go into the run and up the ladder. She would have tried, desperately, to join them, and her instinct to roost safely for the night would have been in overdrive.
Might she not, then, in such circumstances, have flapped in panic up and over the fence? And if so, which fence? Our neighbour’s garden was the obvious place to look, and having considered throwing stones at their backdoor to get their attention (I don’t think I did, but I can’t remember and I might have!), they spotted my panciky face and kindly agreed to help me look for her.
Torches were found and they looked round their back garden; I joined them too, to make sure every bush was looked under, every tree looked up into. I tried to think about what Tilly would be feeling; would she feel safer creeping under or behind something, or would she try to get up high? Our torches were not very good – a bit too dazzling and providing light for only a short distance, so every inch of their garden needed to be looked at close-up. I forgot to ask if they had any spring bulbs in the flower beds, I was like a thing possessed, trampling over the earth in the desperate hope of seeing a black bottom or a silver ruff dimly lit under the stars.
The night was getting colder, too. It was going to be another one below zero. I thought of Tilly, cold and alone, holed up somewhere, low or high, without her usual bedmates to keep her warm. Perhaps she was feeling afraid? I know I was- what if there were foxes prowling, cats out at night, or dogs being walked? How could a lone domestic chicken – a pet without any instinct to survive without human help – cope out on her own, in the middle of a freezing winter’s night?
We then went into the lane behind our garden, which is a dead end and used only for another street to access their garages. This was the worst place for her to be. She might have found her way into the lane if she had flapped over into my neighbour’s garden, and then over their back fence. It was unthinkable. She would not have an easy route back to us, if this was the case.
I knew her instinct and innate sense of direction would lead her in the direction of the roost, rather than necessarily the ladder, and so she might have flapped into another neighbour’s front garden. My shining torch alerted (actually rather alarmed) this neighbour, but soon her teenage daughter and friend kindly also went into the lane to call for Tilly. Still nothing.
I tried to think like a hen. Where would I go? I thought I might find an evergreen hedge or tree, and if possible, try to get up a bit higher. I got right inside an Eleaegnus hedge, startling a small roosting bird in the process, which flew out – I do feel guilty about that. But I had to look everywhere for Tilly. As well as my garden and the lane, I searched at least 6 front gardens, under cars and even a motorbike. I returned to scour my neighbour’s back garden yet again, even shoving my way past various bikes and other outdoorsy things stowed in what seemed like a suitably covered spot in which a lost hen might take shelter. But nothing. Every tree and every bush was searched, high and low. I looked for clues – hen tracks in the frost, stray feathers where she might have squeezed or climbed, a glint of black or silver in the moonlight.
If only Tilly was a white chicken, and not a mainly black one, she would be much easier to spot. Then again, if only I had heat-seeking night vision goggles. If only I knew where she was…
I returned to our own garden to search in the hens’ patch again. It wasn’t logical that she would be here, because if she had managed to get over the little fence into their section, she would presumably be in the henhouse with the others, all tucked up. But what if she had injured herself and was hiding out here, unable to ascend the ladder to bed? What too if she had actually had an altogether different emergency, and flown into the fenced-off pond? I shone my torch onto the inky water, already partly frozen, and looked grimly for signs of a submerged hen. What relief that there was nothing to see.
Several times I found myself strangely drawn to one section of garden- quite near to where I last saw her -on our side of the hen fence. Every now and then I thought I heard the faintest squeak or snuffle, but on searching each time yet again, she just wasn’t there. By now I had been out looking for her for well over 2 hours. I was utterly baffled, each pot had been looked behind or on, each bush investigated, every shadow studied in detail, each tree scrutinised.
I planned to renew my search when my husband got in from work, but apart from that, felt my best hope of finding Tilly was to resume in the morning, and hope that she survived the night. I prayed very hard, in the way known to many suddenly facing a difficult moment, not least to St Francis, patron saint of animals, and to St Anthony, finder of lost things.
Perhaps Tilly would find her way back into the garden for breakfast, or at least let us know where she was? Images of a lone hen trying to cross the main road not far away, or of being sniffed out by a fox or dog, were pushing their way meanly into my thoughts.
As a last endeavour, I lifted the huge pot I bought last autumn for a rose, and which I have never planted up. It is enormous and sits inverted on the patio, so that no unsuspecting hen hops in. Nothing there, how silly of me, it’s not as if a hen could burrow under it from the patio, is it? But it was worth a look, even so. A few feet away there was another smaller flower pot, also inverted, made of robust terracotta-like plastic. This has a thick rim and is embossed with bunches of grapes and vine leaves. The widest point of the rim is 40 cm although the opening is only 34 cm. It stands 35 cm high, and like the really huge pot, lives on the patio waiting for me to plant something. It normally stands the right way up, though.
As I lifted the rim I felt slight resistance, nothing tangible, but what was that pile of leaves….. or rags, or old mop….or whatever, under it? Could it be feathers? I yanked off the pot completely to reveal Tilly – all smoky black feathers – looking much smaller than normal, roosting on the ground as if having a pot fall over the top of you was an everyday occurrence. I picked her up and hugged her, laughing hysterically, my relief palpable. She seemed quite happy to see me too, letting me scoop her up without a protest, and return her to the safety and warmth of the roost. I wonder what she told the other hens? That the stories of Chicken Licken were true, that the sky really can fall down?
When my laughter had subsided I realised how Tilly had come to be under the pot. It stands next to the hen fence, on our side. Normally it holds a plant-in-waiting, but for some reason I had removed the plant, and left the pot standing empty. Tilly must have seen the pot as a means to get back over the fence at dusk, and hopped onto its rim; her weight then caused it to topple over, trapping her neatly – and completely- under it. There were after all, no sticky out feathers to give a clue as to her whereabouts, she was indeed a chicken in a pot! My poule au pot had been “cooking” (or maybe freezing) for at least two-and-a-half hours, possibly considerably longer, with just four air holes to sustain her.
Why didn’t she cluck her whereabouts? Maybe it was too dark under there, or too scary… but I am sure that Bertha would have been chattering away loudly and incessantly! Maybe Tilly was too surprised and sat silently in what she perceived as the inkiest night ever… How lucky, remarked my husband, that I HAD looked under the pot, as we might otherwise have found her weeks later … it doesn’t bear thinking about.
In any case, we laughed a great deal over it, and I believe a glass of wine was drunk as well. How lovely it was to know Tilly was finally where she should be, safe and warm with her friends in the henhouse, and not sleeping out. Her experiment on the flipside had concluded happily. Forget Bill and Ben – we have Tilly, the Flowerpot Hen!